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The Difference Between Racist Jokes and Inclusive Humor May 6, 2019

In March, thanks to a freak snow storm that buried Central Oregon for a solid week, I finished writing Lizzie Bennet's Diary. The project isn't fully finished because I'm in the process of distributing the paperback and eBook through Lulu. While the technical and business parts of me have loose ends to tie up, the creative part of me has already moved on.

My next project is a former project, in a way. I'm now rewriting a novel I first drafted about six years ago, Kagemusha. And by "rewrite," I don't mean I'm making minor tweaks to the existing novel. I mean I'm scrapping the whole dang thing. I'm taking the same basic premise and writing an entirely different book.

In July 2016, I wrote the following in a blog post titled "Writing Without Fear."

Kagemusha has a fatal flaw: I was so determined to be lighthearted and funny that I shied away from any complex emotion. I left the characters and their relationships deliberately underdeveloped because I was afraid of making the story "too serious." I deleted whole chapter outlines and filled the gaps with time skips to avoid any sticky topics.

I first conceived of Kagemusha in my mid-twenties, before I was a fully formed adult. I was still living in my college apartment and struggling to launch my career in libraries. My life was like freshly mixed Jello, liquid and lumpy. Looking at it you'd worry, "Can this really gel into something solid?"

Now I'm in my early thirties, and my life has set up nicely. I have a stable full-time job and a house. I'm comfortable enough to afford costly hobbies like sewing, flute, and piano.

"Growing up" has had a complicated effect on how I write. On one hand, writing blog posts like this one is harder than it used to be. I'm more cautious about what I say. My students or coworkers might find this blog, so I filter myself to avoid saying anything too controversial or upsetting.

On the other hand, when it comes to writing fiction, I'm no longer afraid of sticky topics. In fact, I love writing melodrama. Bring on the tears! I need more conflict!

My mid-twenties attempt at Kagemusha was essentially a sitcom. It was highly episodic, with only a pinch of plot to glue the chapters together. The outline I have now is heftier, with a central theme of the tensions between individual identity, cultural identity, and public persona.

The project is also riskier. The hero of the story is now Iranian-American, and the heroine is Chinese-American. Their racial identities are core components of the new plot. The clash between Western and Eastern cultures fuels much of the drama and the humor.

Those of you blissfully insulated from social media likely read the paragraph above and thought, "Cool." Those of you who lurk in the Twitterverse might have sucked air through your teeth and thought, "Oh dear. Are you sure you want to do that?"

Progress vs. Hysteria

Every month or two I read about a new controversy in the publishing world over authors who write about cultures other than their own. In March, the controversy was about Kosoko Jackson's A Place for Wolves. The New York Times discussed the incident in the article, "Teen Fiction and the Perils of Cancel Culture." Jackson, a gay black man who had previously worked as a sensitivity reader for publishers, wrote a novel set in Kosovo during the '90s civil war. One of the villains was an Albanian Muslim. According to the YA corner of Twitter, writing such a villain equated to "shitting on genocide victims." Jackson pulled the book from publication.

Then this week the NYT ran another piece titled, "She Pulled Her Debut Book When Critics Found It Racist. Now She Plans to Publish." The article details the Goodreads kerfuffle, subsequent cancellation, and later resurrection of Amelie Wen Zhao's Blood Heir. The YA novel is about a world where "a group of people called Affinites, who have special powers, are feared and trafficked for labor by the powerful elite." Netizens who hadn't yet read the book deemed it insufficiently sensitive on the issue of slavery, because real oppressed peoples don't have magic powers.

Much genuine racism and sexism can be found in published novels. I see it all the time and also get upset about it, as you can see from my previous posts like "Faux Diversity in Fiction," Faux Strength in Female Characters," and "Sex Isn't a Story, Intelligence Isn't Cute, and Culture Isn't Character." But extreme cases like these, in which people whip themselves up in a frenzy over microscopic hints of insensitivity, raise the questions: Where is the line between progress and hysteria? What's the difference between a portrayal of an Albanian Muslim villain that merits moral outrage, and a harmless portrayal undeserving of the punitive reaction on social media?

I can say what the difference is not: intention. Most harmful stories and jokes aren't told out of malice, but out of carelessness. People are unaware of their biases and don't realize a joke or well-meaning book can be terribly hurtful.

The difference is also not necessarily in how positive or negative the portrayal is. Yes, many xenophobic writers have crafted books and movie scripts starring blond, blue-eyed heroes fighting mustachioed villains with heavy German, Russian, Italian, Chinese, or Middle Eastern accents. So when we see a character of an oppressed group cast as a villain, it's easy to jump to the conclusion the author must be racist.

But it's possible to write a complex villain that happens to have a certain ethnic identity without throwing shade on his or her entire group. It's also possible (and common) to write a seemingly benign character that unintentionally reinforces stereotypes. Think of the funny gay sidekick in a rom-com whose one and only character trait is "flamboyant." Or the cool black best friend who starts every sentence with "Girrrl" and has no apparent life of her own.

Racism vs. Humor: Examples

In December of my freshman year of college, the girls in my dorm gathered in the common room to watch A Christmas Story. A clean kids' movie with heartwarming morals, right? Until you get to the scene in which the waiters at the Chinese restaurant sing, "Deck the harr with bough of horry! Fa ra ra ra ra, ra ra ra ra!".

The girls around me cracked up at the scene. I wasn't offended, but I was puzzled. I couldn't understand what they all found so funny. A girl with curly blond hair explained to me, the only half-Chinese person in the room, "It's because Chinese people can't say the 'L' sound."

There are two reasons this scene is racist, not funny. First, the "humor" relies on painting Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners, too different and dumb to ever fit in with us true Americans.

Second, Mandarin has the "L" sound! Bruce Lee? Lucy Liu? Do these names ring any berr?

The "L" sound is used at the beginnings of Chinese syllables, not at the ends. (See: Table of Initial-Final Combinations). So it can be difficult for Mandarin-speakers who learn English later in life to pronounce words like "hall" and "bell." But "holly" and "fa la la" are easy peasy.

Other Asian languages use an alveolar tap halfway between "L" and "R," like Korean; or they don't use the "L" sound at all, like Japanese. So the gag works...if you toss all East Asian people into one perpetual foreigner pot and assume they're the same. That's pretty much the definition of racism.

Now here's another video I saw in college with stereotypes of Asian people: "Shit Asian Moms Say." While I scratched my head at the restaurant scene in A Christmas Story, in my early twenties I found this off-color skit side-splittingly funny.

What's the difference? Both videos show ridiculous caricatures of Chinese people. So why would I find one offensive and the other humorous?

Racism divides. Humor unites.

You can see a pattern in the comments of the two YouTube videos. On A Christmas Story, the comments are generally along the lines of, "Best scene in the movie! Humorless millennial SJWs ruin everything!" People recognize that the scene is racist, yet they defiantly insist it's funny anyway. And if you don't agree, "Know some humor or get outta my country."

In contrast, the comments on "Shit Asian Moms Say" are from Asian viewers writing that a particular part of the video hit home. "Honestly this is my Korean/Japanese/Filipino mom ALL THE TIME!"

People from other cultures chime in and say, "This is just like my Mexican mom too, lol." Or, "Same as an Indian, but instead of East Asian languages it's all Hindi." The video isn't just for Asians; it resonates with people everywhere.

So one video divides people and encourages cruelty to "outsiders," while the other brings people from different backgrounds together to laugh about their shared experiences. One is factually incorrect, while the other prompts people to write, "I'm Chinese and this could not be more true!"

Racism generalizes and promotes lies. Humor is complex and truthful.

I wrote in 2014 that truth is the backbone of comedy. The restaurant scene lacks authenticity, while the viral YouTube video has it in spades.

Has anyone in the audience of A Christmas Story ever listened to a group of Asian carolers sing "Fa ra ra"? No, because it doesn't happen.

Has anyone in the audience of "Shit Asian Moms Say" ever been on the receiving end of an angry tirade that ended when the telephone rang, and Mom switched instantly to her dulcet public voice? Absolutely.

Racism alienates groups as "others." Humor embraces groups as "us."

A Christmas Story was made by a Hollywood studio in the early 1980s, based on a book by a humorist who grew up in Indiana in the 1920s and '30s. The scene frames the Asian waiters from a distance as one homogeneous group in Manchurian costumes. The audience is expected to identify not with them, but with the white family in the background gaping open-mouthed at these alien curiosities.

"Shit Asian Moms Say" was made by an Asian-American man and his friends in the early 2010s. His exaggerated portrayal of his Taiwanese mother is based on personal experience, and it comes out of love. The video portrays a complicated character who's comically strict and frank, but also nurturing, friendly, and affectionate. The audience is expected to identify with the Asian actor doing the impersonation and think, "Man, we had the same childhood!"

Professional comedians of all races mine their own lives for material. Gabriel Iglesius impersonates Mexican men and women running taco stands in his stand-up programs. Trevor Noah jokes about life in South Africa, where traffic lights are mere "suggestions." Hasan Minhaj shapes routines around his relationship with his immigrant Muslim Indian parents. Yoo Byung Jae ruminates on the absurd social niceties of life in South Korea, Mel Brooks makes movies featuring "Druish Princesses," and so on.

This list might give you the impression that only people from within a culture are qualified to joke or write about it. I believe everyone should be "allowed" to write about any group of people, but only those very familiar with a culture can do it well.

These comedians have been immersed in their cultures since birth, so they've had daily opportunities to notice the truths that can be spun into comic gold. If writers from other cultures want to do the same, they have to work very hard.

Writing Sensitively While Pushing Boundaries

I can't start my life over as an Iranian-American, but I can do everything in my power to immerse myself in the culture. I can read all the Persian books and blogs I can find, watch all the movies from filmmakers in Iran that I can get my hands on (which is sadly few, even for a librarian), and talk to people with first-hand experiences.

I can also make sure my characters are characters, not caricatures. Racist portrayals frame characters around their ethnic identities first and their personalities second (or not at all). Respectful portrayals imbue every character with complexity and realism, regardless of race.

My ultimate goal in rewriting Kagemusha is to create a novel that people of all races will recognize themselves in. I hope Persian and Chinese readers will be delighted to see themselves represented in print. It would be the ultimate compliment for someone to say, "This is so my life!"


Vijaya (June 24, 2019 9:33 am)

Followed you over from WU. Really enjoyed this piece (also the music) and the Chinese Mom clip is hilarious. And the older I get, the more I realize I'm turning into my mother. Best of luck as you rewrite your heart book! I'm getting ready to revise one too and psyching myself up (also procrastinating).

(Will not be shown)

What is the first letter of "Massachusetts"?